I thought this time last season that the Rockets’ wouldn’t miss a beat without Trevor Ariza and that Houston’s goal for the upcoming year would be to keep Chris Paul healthy for the postseason. Paul did stay healthy, but it didn’t matter as his demise turned out to be inevitable. I was largely right about Ariza but wrong for reasons pretty much nobody predicted.
Now we head into another season, and a completely new era, with Russell Westbrook inserted into the supporting role in Paul’s stead. December will mark ten years of Red94. Ten years of different eras, most anchored by James Harden. When I started, the Rockets started out as just a team of likable lunch-pail guys everybody knew only carried worth as cap figures. They’ve since morphed, nay evolved, into a perennial contender, lambasted for their playoff failures.
Is 2019-2020 the year the Houston Rockets finally break through? This marks the third season in a row of the quartet of Harden, Eric Gordon, Clint Capela, and P.J. Tucker. The fourth for the former three and I guess throw Ryan Anderson in there too. We are just waiting for this group to break through.
What Happened Last Year?
I’ve been writing and tweeting and podcasting my diagnosis since May, but the point of a season preview is to compile all of those words neatly into one coherent piece. So here it all goes again.
The Rockets declined from 2018-2019 last season because Paul rapidly regressed in a way that no one saw coming so soon and because overall as a team, they regressed on the defensive boards.
It should be made very clear: the Rockets did not regress defensively last season with the loss of Ariza as was prognosticated by experts that summer. While it’s true that they finished the season 18th overall in defensive rating, much of what went into the aggregate figure was offensive output sacrificed by lineups that hadn’t yet found their footing. Houston’s first half of the year was characterized by a rash of injuries and a revolving door of G-League replacements. When Mike D’Antoni was finally able to settle in on Gordon, Austin Rivers, and Danuel House to eat up the lion’s share of the wing minutes, the Rockets finished the last 25 games of the season (e.g. the post-All-Star break segment of the year) with the second best defensive rating in the NBA.
So no, the Rockets did not fall apart defensively without Ariza like everyone predicted. I underscore this point because the myth of Trevor Ariza as a defensive stopper is one I had been pushing back upon for years. Where they likely did miss Ariza is somewhere no one saw coming and in the one area which tells the story of Houston’s 2018-2019 season: on the boards, but particularly boxing out.
Ariza averaged just 4.4 rebounds per game in 2017-2018 so its not surprising that nobody thought removing him from the lineup would impact the team on the glass.
I wrote in last year’s preview:
The defining development of last season’s campaign, which catapulted Houston from a dangerous 55-win team to one of the top units of the last decade, was the improvement from 18th in defensive rating a season before all the way up to seventh in 2018. Much of that can be attributed to the defensive rebounding percentage improvement from 21st in 2017 up to fourth last season.http://www.red94.net/red94-2018-2019-houston-rockets-season-preview/16818/
Last year, the Rockets finished 29th in DREB%. And really the only difference between 2017-2018’s roster and 2018-2019’s roster, amongst the core groups, is the replacement of Ariza with heavier minutes at small forward for Gordon, and the insertion of Rivers and House. My theory is that while the 6’8 Ariza may not have been cleaning the glass himself, he was most likely more active boxing out bigger opponents than his shorter replacements the following year. Its the only plausible explanation to a mystery which holds no quantifiable leads.
Chris Paul’s Regression
Chris Paul appeared in 58 games last season, the same number of games in which he had played in 2017-2018. His playing time actually ticked up ever so slightly to 32.0 from 31.8, but his field goal percentage fell from 46% all the way down to 42%. Three-point percentage also fell from 38% to 36%.
The problems for Paul came against Golden State in the semifinals where he averaged 16.7 points, 7.2 rebounds, and 5.7 assists on 44% shooting and 31% on 3’s. While he scored 27 points on 11/19 from the field, grabbed 11 rebounds, and dished out six assists in the final Game 6, he was dreadful for much of the rest of the series. Paul was 3/14 and 0/6 on 3’s in the pivotal Game 5 of the series, with just six assists. In Game 1, he had just four assists compared to five turnovers. In Game 2, six assists to four turnovers, and just 6/14 from the floor.
Paul was still effective, and I submit, still a star in the broader scope. But in this individual matchup, against the Warriors, Paul could no longer do what the Rockets’ system called for him to do which was to beat his man in isolation off the dribble. It actually became painful watching the 34-year-old Paul get beat to his spots repeatedly by backup Warriors big men who he would’ve tortured just a season ago.
Looking Ahead to 2020
I still think that had the Rockets kept Paul and not made the trade for Westbrook, they still would have been in position to make a run for the title this season and possibly could have been considered the favorites to come out of the Western Conference. Despite his struggles against the Warriors, Paul was/is still an impactful playmaker. Per cleaningtheglass.com, Houston was still a +6.0 last year with Paul on the court, good for the 85th percentile in the league. And the Warriors are out of the way this season with Kevin Durant’s departure and Klay Thompson’s injury. But its all a moot point – Harden wanted Russell Westbrook on the Rockets.
Westbrook lowers Houston’s floor, but raises its ceiling from Paul. Its a gamble Daryl Morey either felt safe taking or in which he had no say, given the pressure from his franchise player.
Continuity and Durability
Paul George is expected to miss the first few weeks of the year, Kawhi Leonard will probably continue on some form of load management, Anthony Davis has only appeared in more than 75 games twice in his career, and Lebron James is a 35 year old whose midseason injury torpedoed the Lakers’ chances last season. Meanwhile, Westbrook has only missed 14 games in the last four seasons, while Harden has only missed 16 in the last five.http://www.red94.net/on-health-and-durability/17320/
Houston has two advantages this season over the rest of the West and in relation to their 2018-2019 team: continuity and durability.
With Rivers and House agreeing to terms on new deals last summer, the Rockets are bringing back their core seven players with just Westbrook swapped out for Paul. They won’t be wasting large chunks of the season looking to fill key spots in the rotation the way they were last season as the likes of Carmelo Anthony, James Ennis, and Michael Carter-Williams were all given opportunities to fill the wing role before House emerged.
And in Harden and Westbrook, the Rockets also have what is the equivalent of two workhorse pitchers who can eat up innings over the course of the season. This is the main reason I am predicting the Rockets to finish with the top seed out West. While the Rockets’ two stars may face struggles meshing, if recent history serves, they’ll at least be available. That’s not a projection that can be made for the Lakers and Clippers with the age (Lebron) and injury histories of those teams’ respective stars.
Defense vs. Rebounding
Much has been written about the challenges of acclimating Russell Westbrook into the Rockets’ offense. To be sure, he’s not the clean fit that Paul was next to Harden, incapable of consistently knocking down open threes on the perimeter and spacing the floor. But I think there’s enough evidence to suggest that what he provides as the game’s best transition player and in attacking with the ball in his hands (the Thunder were close to unguardable when Westbrook and Adams were surrounded by shooters) will be enough to maintain Houston’s spot in the rankings as one of the league’s very best offenses. And that is even if Harden and Westbrook do not commit to moving off the ball as much as they paid lip service to doing at media day.
What I think will be the most interesting question to watch for the Houston Rockets in 2019-2020 is the push and pull between defensive rating and DREB%. As stated above, the Rockets took a nosedive in 2018-2019 on the defensive glass. But Westbrook is a superior rebounder to Paul, and House will be replacing Gordon in the starting lineup. Per cleaningtheglass.com, the 6’4 Gordon was in the 3rd percentile among wings in defensive rebounding percentage last season, which is not surprising. On the contrary, Houston had its best stretch of the year on the glass during the period of time when House started at 18th in the league. That’s not stellar, but it’s a hell of an improvement from 29th. This is all to say that there is a decent chance that the Rockets improve on the boards this season.
But Paul, even at his advanced age, was still a superior defender over Westbrook. While the latter is athletic and physical, he gambles too much and loses focus against his assignments off the ball far too often. While Harden has improved greatly in this regard, this of course is still a problem with him as well. The Rockets can’t hide both Harden and Westbrook. Can a team survive playing two defenders who aren’t completely dialed in? Luckily for Houston, “the Warriors” no longer exist, so this may not even be a problem the way it certainly would have been in the past. Perhaps all will be well with the Lakers and Clippers expected to both run isolation heavy offenses.
What I’m looking for is whether any slip in the defense is offset by the expected improvement on the boards, and vice versa. The team will almost surely eventually abandon or heavily scale down their switching scheme from two seasons ago – that unwinding process already began last year due to Capela’s early struggles defending the perimeter. With the Warriors no longer an expected impediment to the championship, there’s no reason to instill a system over 82 games which won’t be needed in the end.
Best Case Scenario
It’s been rather odd seeing the predictions this summer regarding the effects of the Westbrook trade and its impact on Harden’s production. While he almost certainly won’t average 36 points per game again, I see no reason to think Harden’s scoring will dip below 30 per game as has been almost universally predicted. Even with a reduced usage due to Westbrook’s presence, Harden is just too efficient and too confident in his abilities for a massive dip. That is to say, if he keeps taking well over ten three point attempts per game, and getting to the line at will, the math doesn’t add up in any other way.
At best case, I see Houston having two teams. One in which Harden leads the half-court attack and another in which Westbrook adds a fastbreak element to a team which had been lethargic in transition the past few years. House and Capela should benefit here as well, filling the lanes.
One of the points that’s most overlooked in relation to the Paul/Westbrook trade, and the one which gives me the most hope, is that in playing next to Westbrook, Paul George turned in the best season of his career, producing at a Durant-level that no one thought he had in him. Can Westbrook help Harden the same way? The latter can’t really get much better from a production standpoint but maybe Russ’ presence can take the pressure off Harden in the postseason? For all of Harden’s brilliance in stuffing the stat sheet, he still freezes up when the season is on the line. Having an old friend in tow who is famously known for giving zero ***** could do a lot for psychological barriers.
The Rockets enter their third season in a row as legitimate contenders. There are question marks, but for the first time, there is no clear obstacle in their path. The Golden State Warriors are gone. Entering the season, Houston has as good a chance to win the title as anyone else in the league.